(or, An Atheist and a Catholic Walk Into a Bar…)
I grew up Catholic. I went to church every Sunday and said grace before dinner. I went to catechism during the school year and to summer Bible school when school was finished. The first book I memorized was a children’s version of The Good Samaritan. I loved the formality of my First Holy Communion: the white dress with pink ribbons at the sleeves, the short veil, and my pearl rosary. During Advent, I loved singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in a loud, serious, and morose-sounding voice. On Palm Sunday, my grandma taught me how to braid the palm leaves, and I tucked them behind a ceramic cross that hung on the wall in my bedroom.
This continued on into my teen years, when I became very involved in my youth group. Our enthusiastic deacon led us in service projects, retreats, song, and prayer. I wrote some God-inspired songs: “His Hand rushes out to me like a tidal wave of looove…” I even made a pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Denver to see Pope John Paul celebrate mass at Mile High Stadium. My faith shaped how I looked at the world and how I acted in it. To some end, faith even shaped how others responded to me: once, I asked a boy I liked to have coffee with me after school, and he said, “Well, you’re cool, but you’re too religious for me.”
My first year at university, I still went to mass every Sunday. I wasn’t involved in the Bible studies or prayer groups, but I still considered this routine to be an important part of who I was. Eventually, though—and it wasn’t through a lightning-strikes-style epiphany—I realized I attended church through habit. The experience had reduced to a mindless function. Despite the feeling of peace mass brought me, I had no dynamic awareness of God’s presence anymore. I didn’t stop believing in God, I just stopped going to church.
My husband Andrew is atheist. I am Catholic. When his sperm and my egg met in the womb, I’m surprised they agreed to combine and create. Yet, this pairing of opposites, and mutual respect and appreciation for, has been the culture of our relationship since our early 20s. This explains why Andrew was OK with it when 6-week-old Evan was baptized at Sacred Heart, our local Catholic church. This also explains why I knew, from that moment on, that I’d have to take full responsibility for Evan’s spiritual development. I found this task daunting.
I started taking Evan to church right after he turned 3. I wasn’t the mom who agreed to let him bring a bag of toys and books to stay entertained; I did, however, let him choose our seat each week. Evan usually chose the pew right in front, and he paid rapt attention to the priest’s every action. He didn’t try to sing the songs, and he didn’t want to kneel, but he was silent with amazed interest most of the time.
One day, Evan and I were playing “camping” in our living room, building a fire out of Lincoln logs and Monopoly money. As we were getting ready to roast marshmallow cotton balls over it, Evan closed his eyes, bowed his head, and said: “God to Jesus, God to the world, guard the planets, guard the waters, and everything we love in our hearts.” I wrote down this profound little prayer as soon as I could, and then shared it with my mother and father, who shared it with their prayer group. I was so pleased with the development of my young son’s spirituality. It appeared he was taking in quite a lot from going to church every Sunday.
That said, I was reasonably careful not to congratulate myself too much: I knew there was more I should do to develop Evan’s faith—we didn’t pray before meals or at bedtime, or read kid-versions of religious stories. I didn’t initiate many conversations about God or Heaven. I was still treating church as just a casual something to do on the weekend, not as a lifestyle.
Evan attended one year of religious education, in 1st grade. I looked at the experience as something that couldn’t really hurt, but I didn’t know if it would help, either. Every Wednesday night, I’d pick Evan up from class, and say, “Tell me what you learned about Jesus.” And he would reply, “Nothing, really, but I do like getting the stickers on my folder every week.” Clearly, he’d digested the same attitude I’d modeled about church and spirituality.
It was no surprise to me this year that Evan didn’t want to do religious education again. In fact, he told me: “I’m not going to religious head* this year, Mom. That would be a big waste of money.” Then he went on to describe everything he doesn’t like about church: “Too many long, boring songs; too much smelly smoke; and too much kneeling for kids—that’s just ridiculous. Besides, God isn’t even real. I mean, a PERSON? Living in the SKY? Come ON!” (*Evan does call religious ed “religious head.” This was his invention, not mine or Andrew’s.)
One sunny day this past summer, when Evan and I were walking around the neighborhood, I asked him, “What do you suppose happens to people when they die? Do they go to Heaven?”
He replied, “No. When a person dies, their body goes into the ground, and then they grow into part of the life around us. Like, see that tree over there? That could be part skin. Or see that puddle? Some of that water might be blood.”
Evan said this with such intelligence and clarity, that I couldn’t add anything more to the thought. At that moment, I realized: it doesn’t bother me that my kid thinks God and Heaven don’t exist. I’m not going to “correct” his already perfectly-formed beliefs. If Evan thinks I’m going to turn into a tree when I die, that’s awesome, because I’ll always be part of the nature on Earth. With beliefs like his, some part of me will always be just outside the door.
Andrea Devenney is happily married to Andrew and mother to Evan. She currently resides in Michigan, USA, where she teaches English at the Central Michigan University. Criminally, she doesn’t have her own blog but DOES now have a Twitter – but I’m hoping to persuade her to write a book next year, as she is by FAR the funniest person I know. She previously wrote a post for my blog entitled “My Mother Superiority Complex, or How I Learned to Let Go and Let Dad“